While working on her book The Flavour of Spice, Times of India food columnist Marryam Reshii asked contacts around the world to send her locally sourced samples of cumin. While some 70 percent of this spice is harvested in India, mostly in the western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, cumin grows in a range of countries that span the globe, from Asia to the Mediterranean to Latin America.
The packages of cumin that arrived to her in Delhi all exuded cumin’s warm, earthy flavors and deep, haylike aromas. “But the shapes, sizes and colors varied substantially,” she says. “The Chinese sample was larger than average and had a yellowish tinge. The Iranian one was very dark and slim. … The [one from] Uzbekistan was squat and fat.” When she put the seeds under her microscope, she saw their similarities. “Every last sample had the exact same number of ridges running down its length and three microscopic bristles at one end, where they are joined to the plant,” she says.
Historically, she adds, “almost every spice started off in one corner of the globe, traveled naturally or forcibly to another.” Cumin, however, has taken such deep root in local cuisines that in some places it has become associated more with its adopted home than its home of origin.
Exactly where that origin is, however, has proven hard to pin down. While many other spices have precisely known origins, archeologists have been able to trace cumin only broadly. Most evidence points toward the lands around the Eastern Mediterranean, the Nile Valley or the western region of Asia.
In written records, cumin first appears in the Akkadian language, in cuneiform script, on a trio of Old Babylonian clay tablets, circa 1700 BCE. “The first recorded cooking recipes in human history were written on cuneiform tablets,” explains Iraqi American food writer, historian and translator Nawal Nasrallah. “Cumin was one of the many spices.”
Take for example its recipe for “raised turnips: You throw fat in it … onion, dorsal thorn … coriander, cumin.” It also appears in recipes for broths of fresh and salted venison, entrails and mutton. The cuneiform script renders the spice’s name as kamûnu—not that far from today’s kamun in Arabic and the Latin scientific name Cuminum cyminum, though Nasrullah admits she hasn’t been able to “associate the name with a meaning, just its function.” What is clear is that cumin’s popularity over the millennia is not just about cooking.
The earliest medieval cookbook, Kitab al-Tabikh (Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens), written in 10th-century Baghdad by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq and translated by Nasrallah in 2010, deemed cumin “beneficial in combatting flatulence, facilitating digestion and inducing burping,” she says.
Aloo Dum (Slow-Cooked Potatoes)
This classic dish is popular across much of the Indian subcontinent.
This recipe has been adapted from the author’s 2015 book
Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea.
(Serves 4 to 6)
910 grams (2 pounds) small or medium white potatoes
6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 heaped tablespoon freshly grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons sunflower or canola oil
1 heaped teaspoon cumin seeds
2 generous pinches turmeric
½ teaspoon chili flakes
Finely chopped fresh cilantro (coriander leaves)
Scrub the potatoes but do not peel. Put in a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt, and reduce the heat to medium low. Partly cover the pot, and gently boil until tender and the tip of a knife penetrates with little resistance, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain. Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and cut into pieces just bigger than bite-size.
Meanwhile, mash the garlic to a paste in a mortar with the ginger.
In a large sauté pan, skillet or wok, heat the oil over medium heat and add the cumin seeds. When they begin to jump, stir in the garlic-ginger paste. Cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Stir in the turmeric and chili flakes, season with salt and immediately add the potatoes. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water and turn to coat the potatoes with the sauce well. Reduce the heat to low, loosely cover the pan and cook for 3 to 5 minutes until hot and cooked through. Garnish with cilantro and serve.
It’s for this reason cumin remained important in the region’s cooking. The early Egyptians had recognized the therapeutic properties of cumin. They used the seeds for a range of ailments, including upset stomach (milk boiled with cumin and goose fat), cough (milk with cumin and honey), and for tongue problems, a prescribed concoction calls for “frankincense 1; cumin 1; yellow ochre 1; goose fat 1; honey 1; water 1; to be chewed and spat out.”
In pharaonic Egypt, Nasrallah explains, cumin seeds coated bread dough before baking. “They would be ‘shaken around the greased mold before the dough was added,’” she says, quoting British Egyptologist Hilary Wilson’s study on the food of early pharaonic Egypt, Egyptian Food and Drink. Archeologists even found a basket full of cumin seeds in the tomb at Thebes of 14th-
century-BCE royal architect Kha. Cumin also appeared amid offerings presented by Ramses III (1217–1155 BCE) to the temple of Ra at Heliopolis. And still today, Nasrallah says, cumin is an essential ingredient in the popular Egyptian spice blend dukkah, which mixes toasted nuts, sesame seeds, coriander and cumin.
From the Mediterranean basin, cumin spread widely. Arabs sailed boatloads of it to the Indian subcontinent, and from there it became popular throughout South Asia. Phoenicians took it across North Africa and to Iberia. From there the Spanish took it to the Americas.
Today in cuisines across North Africa, cumin is a defining flavor. In Morocco, ground cumin often appears on the table, in a small dish alongside the saltshaker—a practice with roots in the Roman Empire. In Libya, cumin is most associated with fish, says Ahmed Gatnash, cofounder of Oea, which sells Libyan spices and blends in Wales, UK. “While other key spices such as turmeric and ginger are used as part of a blend, cumin can stand alone,” says Gatnash. “It is a main flavor.”
In Mexico, Spanish colonists and traders brought cumin, and it took root in both the soil and the spice box. “Across Mexico the use of cumin is quite common for moles, pipianes, adobos and other sauces [with nuts and seeds], such as almendrados, encacahuatados and nogadas,” says popular Mexican chef, TV host and restaurateur Margarita Carrillo. “But always in small quantities that don’t dominate the final flavor of the dish.”
It is more prominent in foods from northern Mexico due to both population and climate, she adds. That is where, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more than 100,000 Lebanese settled, and others from throughout the eastern Mediterranean, Iraq and Egypt followed. Among the most famous culinary influences of this migration are tacos al pastor, whose filling is based on spit-grilled meat, much like Middle Eastern shawarma, seasoned with local and Middle Eastern spices, including cumin. The drier climate of Mexico’s north, with its hot summers, also favors cumin that, because of its volatile antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, came to be used “to help keep vegetables over the winter months, when you can hardly grow any,” she explains.
Nowhere though is cumin embraced as fully as it is in India. In addition to growing most of the world’s cumin, Indians also consume almost two-thirds of the world total. Cumin is known as jeera in Hindi, which comes from the Sanskrit root jri, meaning “digestion.” Often added first to a hot pan, cumin gets a starring—rather than secondary—role in flavoring. For this reason, Reshii includes cumin among “The Big Four” of Indian spices, alongside chili, turmeric and coriander. “In Indian cooking, it is inconceivable to proceed without these four spices,” she says. In much of Indian cuisine, she adds, cumin is “about as important as air is to breathing.”
In her book research, Reshii found that cumin grows best in soil that is nutrient-poor. “Desert soil makes the plant work hard to extract every particle of flavor from the earth,” she says. “Once the seed has formed, the weather needs to be dry for the last month. If it rains, the plant bends to the wet ground and the precious crop becomes dark and flavorless.”
And the best cumin? Among her global samples, Reshii says, the most intensely flavored come from western Rajasthan’s Thar Desert. “My Rajasthani stash had the strongest scent and flavor. Almost as it had entrapped the Thar desert in its tiny body.”